PERHAPS ONCE in a season a concert presents a program which, regardless of the quality of the performance, lays bare with an unconscious genius the morphology of the musical art. The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra's concert of last Friday evening did just that. The program of Webern's Six Pieces, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and Bartok's Violin Concerto was not just another variation of the workhorse-standard esoterica-classic modernist admixture. It penetrated the analytic encrustation of ten thousand musicologists, from the turbid intellectualism of Boulez to the ornithological rhapsodizing of Messeian to the volcanic dogmatism of Stockhausen, to reach the foundation of twentieth-century music.
The usual assumption is that Schonberg rescued music from its careening plunge into the decadence of diatonic gigantism by his systematic formulation of the liberating discipline of dodecaphony. People tend to divide into apostles of either Schonberg-the-Savior or Schonberg-the-Antichrist. And so the apostolic succession of innovative geniuses passed from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner to Schonberg (or the Devil) and then to sleep. The common antinomy sets Schonberg against Stravinsky, coalescing all music into two schools in a priceless display of Manichaean passion. Schonberg is seen as the seminal prime mover, and Stravinsky [and to a lesser extent Berg and Bartok] are seen as creative but dead-end derelicts.
In point of fact almost all of today's music issues from the rigorous serialism of Anton Webern, with Bartok and Berg the universally ignored alternatives standing squarely in the mainstream of music.
The unutterable blasphemy that Webern is Procustes while Bartok is Dionysius requires a brief explanation. Bartok was an evolutionary genius who subsumed polytonality, atonality, impressionism, expressionism, and serialism according to his guiding principle of vigorous continuity:
Debussy reawakened among all musicians an awareness of harmony. Beethoven revealed the meaning of progressive form, and Bach the transcendent significance of counterpoint. I am always asking myself: is it possible to make a synthesis of these great masters, a synthesis that is valid for our time?
My own prejudice is that the indispensable continuity of Bartok's idiom is valid for future composers, while the parthenogenesis of most contemporary composers is barren.
The Violin Concerto was the culmination of this search to reconcile modality and tonality, impressionism and germanic form. His Violin Concerto displays three of his leading characteristics: efflorescent harmonic textures, generative rhythms, and his own cyclical sonata-allegro form. The Concerto requires superb understanding of its organic interrelations as well as the ability to switch from intense but strictly controlled lyricism to propulsive technics.
SOLOIST James Oliver Buswell played with general indifference to the work's marvelous structural and tonal subleties. He inexcusably tuned sharp and played with a monochromatic tone which, while rather beautiful, was at odds with the coloristic shading of the piece. Instead of varying from lustrous to astringent, from cantabile to martellato, Mr. Buswell overexercised most of the themes with an unvarying weightiness. One notable exception was the elegiac close of the slow movement. Mr. Buswell played with proper aggressiveness in the Magyar uprisings and heroic cadential moments, but has yet to attain a master violinist's inevitable subtlety in place of gratuitous exhibitionism. He lacked a master's shaded touch in the scrupulous relaxation which informs Bartok's modal songs. His style last evening is best described as consummate-nerveless.
Both soloist and conductor Yannatos inadequately articulated the Bartokian transitions between tempo energico and tempo rubato. This was especially noticeable in the last movement, which as a result sounded perfunctory and rather episodic. The orchestra's strings and winds usually produced an opaque sound lacking inner luster, but the brass sonorously performed those resplendent tutti passages which hint of the later Concerto for Orchestra.
The Webern, a forbidding set of pieces, was for me the Orchestra's finest effort, thanks to strong performances by the principals, especially the first horn. Apart from the low winds' curious timbre, the only real problems were relatively small ones: a lack of rhythmic incisiveness in number Four, a Westminster chime, and some languid contrasts.
Lack of impulse qualified an otherwise impressive performances of Pictures. "The Ballet of the Chicks" was the most successful section, and "The Hut" the most distorted, with its ponderous tempo. The solo baritone and oboe were absolutely first-rate. Conductors usually approach the final apotheosis, "The Great Gate of Kiev," with an orgiastic inflation that would sink Das Rheingold without a trace. Mr. Yannatos wisely avoided the pillory hysterical approach, reasoning that if "The Gate" follows the other sections, it must bear some relation to them. The lasting impression of this work and of the evening was a sensible, thoughtful and commendable performance of a program rich in history by an Orchestra of uncommon musicianship.